By James Goodman
United States – Goodwell Nzou is not one to let adversity stand in the way of success.
The 23-year-old Nazareth College student, who grew up in Zimbabwe, lost much of his right leg when he was 11 years old — an amputation resulting from a poisonous snake bite not properly treated.
An aunt told Nzou that as a disabled person he wouldn’t amount to much, but Nzou — inspired by a father who prodded him to be the best — was determined to prove her wrong.
And he has done so in a big way.
Nzou has shown a steely determination that has taken him from his African village to Nazareth, where he is now a pre-medical student with an A average.
“He is a student with a purpose,” said Steve Tajc, an assistant professor of chemistry at Nazareth.
Nzou has also developed his considerable musical talents, learning the marimba and drums and becoming part of a talented musical group of students with disabilities who were the subject of the 2010 Academy Award-winning documentary, Music by Prudence.
All along, Nzou has created opportunities and overcome obstacles, even seeing some good coming out of his encounter with the venomous snake.
“If it wasn’t for the snake bite, I would not be here. I think I went a bit crazy because of the snake bite. It made me see my other side, which is strong,” said Nzou. “It helped me see what I could do — and all my potential.”
Nzou, with his exacting mind, tells of the fateful events of Nov. 18, 2000.
He and an older brother — one of Nzou’s 20 siblings — were going to the river for a swim in their village when he felt the pain of a bite to his right ankle by a puff adder, a large viper.
“I started running and crying,” recalled Nzou.
The treatment that he received from a healer in the village did nothing to reduce the swelling. His brother — the same one who was with him when he was bitten — transported Nzou in a wheelbarrow to the nearest clinic, 12 miles away. The daily trip for treatment was made for two weeks.
But the clinic was limited in the care that could be provided and, with the swelling from the snake bite not subsiding, gangrene set in.
Nzou did not want to return to his village because he feared he would become an outcast. He eventually ended up at the King George VI Memorial School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.
He and seven other students at the school formed a musical group, Liyana, which won awards and captured the public’s imagination with their Afro-fusion music, blending African rhythms with other forms of music.
Finishing first in the Crossroads Africa inter-regional musical festival in Mozambique led to a European tour and widespread acclaim.
“Liyana has defied their physical challenges and turned them into triumph,” reported the Zimbabwe Independent.
Until he was 18, Nzou’s training in science amounted to what he could learn on his own. But an accident landed him a tutor.
That happened in 2007, when Nzou was a student at King George. The school didn’t have the money to hire science teachers, said Nzou, so the scant supply of lab equipment that it did have was under lock and key.
He didn’t want the lack of resources to stand in his way.
“I started thinking about my village — that it didn’t have a doctor — and that losing a leg could have been avoided. This should not happen again,” he said.
And Nzou was determined that his aunt’s prediction of failure would not become a reality.
“Those words pricked my heart. I wanted to prove her wrong,” he said.
Nzou said that he got a key to the room from a security guard he befriended. And he borrowed enough equipment to conduct experiments in a nearby room, not much bigger than a closet.
The secret lab went unnoticed for three weeks, Nzou recalled, until he accidentally started a fire while doing an experiment.
“I had to scream for help,” Nzou said.
School officials agreed to get him a science tutor, providing guidance as Nzou progressed in his studies.
His last two years of education in Zimbabwe were at the country’s prestigious Christian Brothers College, in Bulawayo, where he polished his skills.
Nzou connects with Nazareth
Nzou made his connection with Nazareth with the help of one of the producers of the award-winning film, Elinor Burkett, who knew about the college because she had given a speech there.
She first met Nzou in 2006 when she was on a Fulbright scholarship teaching in Bulawayo, where Nzou was a student at the King George school.
Watching the Liyana group perform left Burkett with a lasting memory — and one that she would help turn into a documentary film.
“The harmonies were fantastic. They sounded like eight organs playing together,” recalled Burkett.
Burkett, who lives in the upstate community of Hobart, Delaware County, eventually teamed up with filmmaker Roger Ross Williams to make the award-winning short documentary about the group.
Although they are both listed on the credits, they had a falling out that spilled over to the Oscar ceremony, when Burkett — feeling she was being pushed aside by Williams — rushed on stage, interrupting Williams’ acceptance speech with her own.
Using primarily footage of Liyana that did not appear in Music by Prudence, Burkett subsequently produced a documentary, iThemba — the word for “hope” in the African language of Ndebele.
She and her husband, Dennis Gaboury, who is an artist, developed a friendship with Nzou and helped line up scholarships for his college education.
During Lyana’s 2009 tour of the United States, Burkett realized how much education meant to Nzou. While others in the group were sight-seeing, Nzou was studying his chemistry textbook.
Nzou started his education at Nazareth in the fall of 2011. And it soon became clear to Tajc that his knowledge of chemistry went well beyond the introductory level.
The notebooks that Nzou brought with him — from his self-taught days — were full of organic chemistry problems, correctly solved, said Tajc. Nzou was moved into an organic chemistry class.
Nzou, who wants to become a heart surgeon, is now doing research for Tajc on a project using an existing drug to detect the presence of the HIV virus at an early stage.
“He is a very methodical researcher. He doesn’t rush through things. He wants to know why things work,” Tajc said.
Nzou is also a member of the Nazareth College Percussion Ensemble — playing the drums and marimba.
Kristen Shiner McGuire, an assistant professor in professional practice who directs the ensemble, tells of the talent and enthusiasm Nzou has brought to the ensemble.
“He was going outside his comfort and learning new skills,” said Shiner McGuire, noting the self-taught Nzou didn’t read read music until he came to Nazareth.
There’s also a bit of a cultural exchange that is going on at the ensemble. Not only does Nzou play the contemporary music of the ensemble but he’s also teaching the group some of the music of his homeland.
“He’s very strict. He insists that we practice,” said Shiner McGuire. Nzou considers a practice session with the ensemble a perfect way to end the day.
“A mix of chemistry and music is the greatest combination. With all the stress of the day, you need something to relax,” Nzou said. Democrat & Chroncile.com
To help maintain editorial independence Nehanda Radio relies on donations from readers like you. No donation is too small or too big. Help by donating to fund our operations.